Conventional wisdom says scarfing down food before bed is bad for you. Period. End of story. As physician and author of the book, Long Life Strategy, Dr. Ronald Caplan told Health Digest, nighttime eating "just adds on needless calories" and "eating begets eating." The two primary arguments against eating before bed are that the act of digesting food can interfere with sleep quality and that the calories we consume before going to sleep may burn more slowly while we sleep. However, newer evidence suggests that our understanding of nighttime eating deserves another look and possibly some modification.
For example, a 2012 study published in the scientific journal, Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, suggests that consuming small amounts of protein-rich beverages may actually improve absorption of protein, as well as increase morning metabolism and feelings of satiety. However, this effect has only been demonstrated in young men, and while there still may be a lot to learn about the impact of nighttime eating, some foods have been scientifically proven to interfere with sleep. Read on to learn the foods you should never eat before bed.
You should never drink coffee before bed, and not just because of the jitters
It’s well known that drinking coffee near bedtime can sabotage your plans for a good night’s sleep. Most of the blame tends to go to caffeine, and most of the logic tends to focus on the caffeine in coffee being a nervous system stimulant. However, many nutrition experts, like registered dietitian Sydney Lappe, say it’s not just about the "jitter" in the jitter juice. In fact, Lappe explained to Health Digest that the caffeine stimulates "gut motility" and has a diuretic effect. In other words, drinking coffee can lead to unwanted middle-of-the-night trips to the bathroom.
Additionally, and perhaps ironically considering it’s a stimulant, caffeine relaxes the sphincter muscle between the stomach and the esophagus. When that happens, contents of the stomach, including digestive enzymes and acids, may travel back up into the esophagus, causing irritation known as acid reflux. Plus, coffee itself is highly acidic, which can irritate the GI tract — with or without reflux.
Drinking tea before bed might not be as comforting as it sounds
"If you are cold, tea will warm you; if you are too heated, it will cool you; if you are depressed, it will cheer you; if you are excited, it will calm you," William Gladstone, Queen Victoria’s prime minister, once said. Indeed, tea is often associated with comfort and calm. However, while the act of drinking a warm cup of tea before bedtime can be relaxing, once tea of the non-herbal variety is in your system, it can interfere with your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep, according to physician, Richard Beyerlein.
Tea has only about half as much caffeine as regular, caffeinated coffee. But the caffeine in tea can nevertheless present the same issues the caffeine in coffee presents, including preventing us from falling asleep, waking us up in the middle of the night with the urge to use the bathroom, and disturbing our sleep by causing acid reflux.
An alcoholic beverage before bed could throw your sleep off track
When it comes to its effects on sleep, alcohol is a "tricky substance," physician Richard Beyerlein told Health Digest. "At first, it might feel like it’s relaxing you. But it also has a rebound effect that can wake [you] up in the middle of the night." Dr. Beyerlein’s observation is consistent with what research has revealed about alcohol in more recent years, which is that alcohol acts as both a depressant and a stimulant.
One of the effects drinking alcohol has on the human body is that it depresses the central nervous system, slowing down brain function and neural activity. However, research indicates alcohol also acts as a stimulant and has complex effects on behavior, including encouraging inattention or selective attention, feelings of aversion, euphoria, or acts of aggression. So while it might be tempting to turn to a hot toddy on a cold night, it might be better to cut yourself off at least a couple of hours before bedtime, according to Dr. Beyerlein.
Drinking water before bed can have you waking up before your alarm
While some beverages can interfere with sleep because of how their chemical makeup acts on bodily functions, it’s important to know that all beverages have the potential to interfere with sleep when consumed too close to bedtime, according to Dr. Saundra Dalton-Smith, internal medicine physician and author of Sacred Rest: Recover Your Life, Renew Your Energy, Restore Your Sanity. And that includes plain ole water.
The reason that all beverages, including water, travel from your lips to your bladder at a rate of 2 ounces per hour. The amount you drink, your bladder capacity, and other factors may translate into you waking in the night with the need to empt your bladder. Although not a lot of research has been done in the area of insomnia and drinking before bed, one 2019 study published in Sleep and Biological Rhythms pointed to the possibility of there being a significant relationship between sleep disorder symptoms and drinking fluids before bedtime.
Chocolate can be a feel-good mood food but it can also keep you up at night
Eating chocolate before bed can keep you up at night because chocolate contains not one but two stimulants. One is caffeine, which according to the Sleep Foundation, can have a stimulating effect within 15 minutes of consumption, and that effect can continue for up to six hours. The other stimulant is theobromine, according to registered dietitian Cassie Christopher.
Theobromine is an alkaloid, which is an organic, nitrogen-containing compound of plant origin that is known to have a physiological effect on humans. Theobromine has a stimulating effect which can make us feel more alert. In addition, it can support feelings of well-being. While that might feel pleasant, it can also interfere with sleep.
Theobromine levels vary depending in different chocolate products, with dark chocolate generally containing the highest levels. However, dark chocolate also tends to contain less sugar than milk chocolate. Because sugar can also act as a stimulant without offering the same health benefits of theobromine, Christopher told Health Digest that if you want chocolate before bed, it’s best to stick with a small square of dark chocolate.
Citrus fruits and other acidic foods should not be eaten before bed for several reasons
Consuming acidic foods such as tomatoes, sports drinks, or citrus fruits (oranges, grapefruits, tangerines, lemons, and lime) can harm your health in several ways. First, foods containing even healthy acids such as citric acid can increase the production of stomach acid.
When you lie down soon after consuming them, you may experience acid reflux symptoms, including coughing and/or choking, according to internal medicine physician Saundra Dalton-Smith. In the short-term, acid reflux can interfere with sleep. In the long term, chronic acid reflux can lead to serious health problems, including ulcers and esophageal cancer.
Additionally, consuming acidic foods can harm the enamel on your teeth even under the best of circumstances — and consuming them before bed is not the best of circumstances, particularly if you don’t rinse your mouth out afterwards with water. What’s worse, if you brush your teeth within 30 minutes of consuming something acidic, it can exacerbate acid’s damage.
Eating carbs before bed could result in sleep disturbances
Eating foods that are high in carbohydrates can help you fall asleep faster. However, you might not stay asleep. Eating carbs before bed can harm your sleep quality and thus disrupt your sleep, according to registered dietitian nutritionist Sarah Asay. The reason is that unlike, say, foods that are high in fat, foods that are high in carbohydrates tend to be easily and quickly digested by the body. That can lead to a spike — followed by a dip — in blood glucose (blood sugar), which in turn can lead to waking up in the middle of the night, Asay explained to Health Digest.
If you are interested in the sleep-inducing benefits of carbs before bed but would like to minimize the risk of waking up in the middle of the night, Asay suggests pairing your high carb pre-bedtime snack with lean protein.
Eating foods high in fat can ruin a good night’s sleep
Foods that are high in fat can interfere with sleep because digestion is typically protracted, according to Saundra Dalton-Smith, internal medicine physician. In fact, Mayo Clinic researchers discovered it can take days for a fatty meal to completely make it through the digestive tract (via Healthline). Because of their slow transit time, high-fat foods can cause gas, bloating, and indigestion, Dr. Dalton-Smith told Health Digest.
For people prone to sleep apnea, a fatty pre-bedtime meal can actually increase the number of sleep apnea episodes experienced over the course of the night, according to a 2013 study. And foods that are high in saturated fat while also high in sugar and low in fiber — the modus operandi of cake, cookies, candy, and other foods we often default to when snacking between meals — are associated with less restorative sleep and more waking up in the middle of the night, according to a 2016 study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.
Meat is never a good thing to eat before bed
Just as with eating foods high in fat, when you eat animal protein too close to bedtime, it may interfere with your falling asleep and staying asleep. Meat and fish can take as long as 48 hours to be fully digested, according to Healthline. Not only does your body have to work longer to digest animal protein, it has to work harder. And that alone can interfere with getting a good night’s sleep. This is thanks to gas, bloating and indigestion, internal medicine physician Saundra Dalton-Smith told Health Digest.
In addition, your body has to work harder to digest animal protein than it does to digest, say, carbohydrates, according to Mike Evangel, a sports and family chiropractic physician. Perhaps ironically, this is because meat is rich in nutrients, especially protein, and the digestive tract has to work particularly hard to extract and absorb those nutrients.
You should never eat pizza close to bedtime for a whole number of reasons
One of the worst foods you could eat before bed is pizza, according to Dr. Ronald Caplan, a physician and author of the book, Long Life Strategy. In terms of causing sleep disturbance, pizza packs a "double whammy," Dr. Caplan explained to Health Digest, in that pizza is high in simple carbs and high in fat (assuming you take your pizza with cheese).
Although foods high in carbohydrates can help you fall asleep faster, they can also lead to waking up in the middle of the night because of the rise and fall of blood sugar. Foods high in fat can interfere with sleep because of their slow transit time through the digestive tract.
If you opt for meat toppings like sausage or pepperoni, your pizza is actually a "triple whammy." Eating animal protein before bed can interfere with a good night’s sleep because meat has a slow transit time and requires the body to work harder to absorb its nutrients.
Eating a lot of nuts before bed is not a good idea according to the experts
Although nuts are naturally high in melatonin, a hormone associated with promoting sleep, they can also cause sleep disturbances, according to Dr. Mike Evangel, a sports and family chiropractic physician. This is particularly true when nuts are eaten in large quantities.
For one thing, nuts are high in fat, and high-fat foods are known for causing sleep disturbances because they can cause gas, bloating, and indigestion. In addition, nuts are high in fiber, and high-fiber foods may also be associated with digestive disturbances that can interfere with sleep, according to Dr. Saundra Dalton-Smith, internal medicine physician and author of Sacred Rest: Recover Your Life, Renew Your Energy, Restore Your Sanity.
Add protein to that mix, and those issues can become greater, according to a 2020 study published in the Journal of Clinical and Translational Gastroenterology. And, essentially, that’s what nuts are: high protein and high fat. However, eating a small portion of nuts (say, an ounce or two at most) before bed will be less likely to result in digestive disturbances that outweigh their sleep promoting benefits.
High-fiber diets are healthy, but you should never eat high-fiber foods immediately before bed
Eating a high-fiber diet can help you sleep better as a general matter. However, eating foods high in fiber right before bed can contribute to a bad night’s sleep, according to Dr. Saundra Dalton-Smith, internal medicine physician. The reason is that some of the benefits that high-fiber foods confer on your body are also associated with gas and bloating. For example, eating high-fiber foods promotes the growth of healthy gut bacteria; however, such bacteria produce gas as a byproduct.
Examples of high-fiber foods include nuts and nut butters, fruits (especially dried fruits such as prunes, raisins, and dried apricots), vegetables (especially cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage), high-fiber cereals, beans, and oats. To reap the benefits of a high-fiber diet without sacrificing sleep, the dietitians at BistroMD suggest eating high-fiber foods — just not immediately prior to turning in for the night.
Eating spicy foods before bed does not bode well for a good night’s sleep
Eating spicy foods before bed can make for a bad night’s sleep, according to Alicia Galvin, resident dietitian for Sovereign Laboratories. In this regard, Galvin specifically called out hot peppers — or peppers high in capsaicin — and foods made with hot peppers such as Tabasco and Sriracha sauces.
Galvin’s view is supported by a small but seminal study published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology in which six young healthy men who were fed Tabasco sauce with their evening meal experienced sleep loss, including reduced slow wave sleep and stage 2 sleep, and also took longer to fall asleep in the first place. The study authors proposed that capsaicin may affect sleep by raising body temperature during the sleep cycle. Subsequent studies throughout the decades have supported this theory, including one from 2008 that was published in the scientific journal, Sleep Medicine Reviews.
You might want to rethink having fast food before bedtime
If you’ve ever picked up a late-night burger and fries from a fast food joint, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that eating processed food close to bedtime can contribute to a night of poor sleep. However, there’s actual science to back up your empirical data. In a 2019 study published in the Korea Journal of Community Nutrition, university students who were otherwise in good health but who reported a pattern of poor quality or disturbed sleep were found to more frequently consume their meals late at night, and their meals were more frequently described as "fast food."
One of the reasons that processed foods may contribute to sleep disturbance is that they often contain substances that are either difficult to digest or that directly interfere with the body’s relaxation processes (via Johns Hopkins Medicine). For example, processed cheese contains tyramine, which triggers the release of norepinephrine, which is a stimulant associated with the "fight or flight" response.
Instead of fast food, you may want to consider heating up a bowl of soup before you hit the sack. "Foods that are comforting (such as chicken soup) can help your nervous system to power down and relax to give your whole body a sense of safety," acupuncturist and Chinese medicine specialist Tsao-Lin Moy, told Eat This, Not That. Just be sure to opt for a lower sodium option.